Friday, January 28, 2011

Illinois continues to fold under pressure

With 25 seconds left and trailing by one point, Mike Tisdale caught the ball in the lane for Illinois while being guarded by a smaller Indiana defender. He took two dribbles away from the basket, and proceeded to throw the ball in the corner and out-of-bounds. It was the perfect microcosm of the Illinois season to date. The announcer said it perfectly. “No one on Illinois looks like they want to take the shot right now.”

Here in brief, is a recap of all conference games and key non-conference games for Illinois this season:

Big lead vs Maryland, Maryland comes back late but basically runs out of time
Big lead vs North Carolina
Big lead vs Gonzaga
Big lead vs Iowa
Big lead vs Northwestern
Relatively close game against Wisconsin, but Wisconsin can never make any shots or make a run
Clutch win against Michigan St., McCamey makes some very tough threes to seal the game

Loss to Texas in OT - Texas forced the ball out of McCamey’s hands and Illinois could not execute
Loss to UIC – Illinois took a late lead, but could not execute on the final possessions
Loss to Missouri - Illinois was down by one in the final minute, but Missouri sealed it with an 8-0 run
Loss to Penn St. – Penn St. wins in the final seconds
Loss to Wisconsin – Never really close
Loss to Ohio St. – Illinois blows 8 point second half lead and cannot execute in the final minutes (but a lot of that may be because Ohio St. is legitimately an elite team)
Loss to Indiana – Mike Tisdale throws away a chance to take the lead late

What you see is a pattern very consistent with a team with solid margin-of-victory numbers. When Illinois wins, they win big. But in virtually every pressure situation this season, Illinois has failed. This leads to several thoughts:

1) Demetri McCamey is still not a consistent winner.

Demetri McCamey was told by NBA scouts that to be a 1st round draft pick, he needed to win more games. So far, he is failing again this season. Over 4 years, McCamey has developed an incredible chemistry with his 3 fellow seniors. His gaudy assist numbers are a function of the fact that he knows the type of shot each teammate likes, and he can find them in perfect rhythm. McCamey also runs the pick-and-roll exceptionally well with Tisdale, and he has picked up on a lot of Deron William’s NBA mannerisms for how to run selectively and surprise opponents with a change of acceleration. In a lot of ways, McCamey the college player is like Deron the NBA player. But that is actually why I think the comparison to Deron Williams is a terrible one. McCamey’s college game is very refined. He seems to be playing at near his peak performance. On the other hand, Williams was only using a fraction of his talent by the time he was a junior at Illinois. Williams never ran the pick and roll. He was still learning how to use his quickness effectively. Williams had significant upside as a junior. McCamey is a polished college senior without much more room to grow.

2) Bruce Weber should be on the hot seat.

I am very hesitant to say this, because I think it is wrong to be reactionary to close losses. And Bruce Weber is absolutely one of the great teachers of college basketball. But I jump back to something Weber said after his Final Four run in 2005. After the team went 37-2, there were lots of fans that said, “We’ll win it next year.” And Bruce Weber was very cautious. “You have to enjoy this season for what it was. 37-2 was a very special year. Seasons like that do not come around very often.” Weber hoped to be back in the Final Four, but he knew that even for dominant coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, there can be long Final Four droughts.

The question for most teams is not whether they can make the Final Four every year. The question is whether, when the team is back, when the talent is there, can they live up to their potential?

And there can be no question that this is a talented Illinois team. This is one of the greatest collections of shooters ever assembled. No BCS conference team shoots better from 3 point range than Illinois, and seven of the nine rotations players are clearly great shooters.

But when the shots are not falling, Illinois does not step up and make the basketball plays it needs to win. They do not drive and get fouled. They do not get the key steal. They do not get the key stop. Statistically, the most glaring deficiency is probably the team’s defensive rebounding. And Indiana and Penn St. both beat Illinois with offensive put-backs.

The end result is the scatterbrained outcomes you see above. When the shots are falling, Illinois blows teams out. But when things are not clicking, players are afraid to take the shot.

At one point, the question was whether Illinois could compete for a Big Ten title. Then the question was whether the team could make a Sweet Sixteen run and make some real noise in the NCAA tournament. Today, the question is more appropriately whether Illinois can make the NCAA tournament at all. Like Purdue, Illinois has a schedule that was very favorable early. But Illinois ends the year with road trips to Ohio St., Purdue, Michigan St., Minnesota, and a desperate Northwestern team. Simply finishing 10-8 or 9-9 and qualifying for the NCAA tournament would probably qualify as a success at this point. And that is why Bruce Weber should be on the hot seat this year.

3) Margin-of-victory is not everything.

Illinois continues to be ranked much higher in Sagarin’s predictor than in their Elo Chess ranking, reflecting what I stated above. When Illinois wins, they win big. When they lose, they lose close games.

Pomeroy calls this difference luck. And for the most part, we tend to believe this is random noise, not a real skill. (People have argued very persuasively that clutch hitting does not exist in baseball. And I’ve studied the “luck” numbers in college basketball, and the year-to-year correlations in “luck” are pretty small.)

To the extent some coaches are consistently unlucky, that reflects the fact that if you have a large enough sample, sometimes a coin will come up tails 7 times in a row. But I think it is interesting that Bruce Weber’s teams have not had a positive luck rating since his first year with the team (2003-2004). Many years his team’s luck ratings have been close to zero, but at no point have Bruce Weber’s teams really over-achieved.

And at a certain point, you do ask if there is something to the poor play in close games. If Mike Tisdale takes that shot in the lane and it clangs off the back rim, I probably deem it to be bad luck. But when he passes up the shot, and kicks it to a corner where no one is currently standing, that is when I scratch my head. Big Ten Geeks described Illinois' performance this way. "The Illini simply looked lost offensively down the stretch, when almost any aggressive play to the basket would have probably gotten them a trip to the foul line." That type of description is not just bad luck.

At a certain point, when a team fails to execute in pressure situations, I begin to believe that they are a bad team. And that is where I am with Illinois. Until I see them play well under pressure, I am very skeptical that they can perform under pressure.

And this also causes me to ponder a frequent blog question:

4) Should margin-of-victory matter for NCAA seeding?

In past years, fans of the tempo free stats have discussed in length the idea that when seeding teams, margin-of-victory should not be ignored. It is important that the 1-seed not face an 8-seed with great margin-of-victory numbers in the second round or there is no benefit to earning a 1-seed.

But watching Illinois reminds me that I’m not even sure that is right. The question is not necessarily the average quality of a team, but how often they play great. Would you rather face a team that is dominant half the time, and terrible half the time, or a team that has rarely shown signs of being dominant, but usually executes in close games?

Or to put it another way, I would be much more afraid to face Michigan St. than Illinois this year. In terms of margin-of-victory, Michigan St. has not been nearly as good as Illinois. But when the games are close, when the pressure is on, Tom Izzo and his players have been able to execute. And even when they lose, as they did Thursday, they still had a shot to win at the end. Against Michigan, Keith Appling’s three was in-and-out, and with a different flip of the coin, that game goes differently. For Illinois, I don’t feel the same way. I don’t think Illinois deserves a better seed just because they have better margin-of-victory numbers.

And this is why, despite people’s complaints about New Mexico’s seeding last year, or possible complaint’s about Washington’s seeding in mock bracket’s this year, that I continue to love the NCAA tournament selection format. In the end, a group of people reach a consensus and decide on the bracket. There is no formula; there is no guaranteed critical criteria. There are just a group of smart basketball people that are using the best available information to reach a consensus. The process is not perfect, but I think it is the best outcome of any sport.